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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Inside the Mind of a Tyrant

There is soon to be a forthcoming exhibition at The British Library entitled Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

It features some works of a unique collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts assembled by English kings and queens over 700 years.

One of the highlights will be Henry VIII’s Psalter, commissioned and annotated by the King himself.

Here is the first page which shows Henry. But not just as King Henry of England. It is Henry as King David, the conqueror of Jerusalem, the composer of the Psalms and the King chosen by God to lead the people of Israel

The King is looking out at the viewer. The viewer was of course himself. It is an extraordinary conceit and piece of flattery.

Henry is depicted as a scholar-king, diligently reading and following the guidance of the first verse of Psalm 1:

‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly … his will is in the law of the Lord.’

Henry reinforces the connection by writing ‘note who is blessed’ (nota quis sit beatus) next to the verse.

Jean Mallard or Mallart
Henry VIII as David,
Henry VIII’s Psalter, London c. 1540,
Royal 2 A xvi
The British Library, London

The Psalter is a beautiful and fascinating work. It featured prominently in the recent exhibition also at The British LIbrary entitled Henry VIII: Man and Monarch as well as the Sacred Texts exhibition

You can view the Psalter using the software links on the special Turning the Pages™ webpage

The Psalter was produced about 1540 by Jean Mallard or Mallart, a French scribe and illuminator calligrapher and poet,, The Psalter is signed in Latin

“Johannes Mallardus, regius orator, et ex calamo regi Anglie et Francie fidei deffensori invectissimo”


The Prayer Book was presented to Henry VIII in 1540. It was a particularly significant year.

On 6 January Anne of Cleves became Henry's fourth wife; on 6 July the marriage was annulled.

Henry’s adviser Thomas Cromwell was beheaded at Tower Hill on 28 July, the same day that Henry married Catherine Howard in a private ceremony at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. However, the young bride was condemned to death for adultery less than two years later.

In 1540 Henry also sanctioned the destruction of the English and Welsh shrines to saints. It was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism in Western civilisation.

In 1535, Henry added the "supremacy phrase" to the royal style, which became "Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England and France, Defender of the Faith, Lord of Ireland and of the Church of England in Earth Supreme Head". In 1536, the phrase "of the Church of England" changed to "of the Church of England and also of Ireland". Henry had the Irish Parliament change the title "Lord of Ireland" to "King of Ireland" with the Crown of Ireland Act 1542

The style "Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith and of the Church of England and also of Ireland in Earth Supreme Head" remained in use until his death in 1547

The full styles are significant.

It was not simply that he was ousting the spiritual jurisdiction of the Pope from England, Wales and Ireland.. He assumed the Pope`s spiritual jurisdiction in England, Wales and Ireland.

The centuries old distinction between Church and State vanished. There were no longer the two "spheres". Caesar became the Vicar of Christ on Earth, at least as far as England, Wales and Ireland were concerned.

Prior to this time, an English Monarch did not have the full plenitude of legal power which we now call "Sovereignity". Kings and Monarchs were always accountable and subject to higher law. No longer. It took more than a century for Parliament to come to legally rival and break the King`s monopoly of legal and spiritual power.

On his accession, in 1509, he inherited a huge fortune from his father. Despite the seizing of assets from the Church and people whom he had executed, the right to customs duties and other taxes, grants and subsidies from Parliament and two debasements of the coinage, he died in debt. His spending was excessive and profligate. At his death he had 55 palaces.

Henry VIII used the Psalter as his personal prayer book until his death. The Book gives a glimpse into his thought and feelings in the religious sphere.

The pages with Psalms 17 -20 with the King`s annotations are interesting (See below)


The commentary of The British Library on these two pages is instructive:

"Folios 19v–23

At the top of the left-hand page, Psalm 17: 26–7 assure us that, with the holy, God will be holy, that, with the innocent man, He will be innocent, but, with the perverse, He will be a hard judge. Henry VIII was certain that he was numbered among the blessed and comments that this message is encouraging (de confortio).

The King has annotated the right-hand page in two places.

At the top of the page, he highlights the last verse of Psalm 19:

‘O Lord, save the king: and hear us in the day that we shall call upon thee’ as ‘an appropriate prayer for kings’ (pro rege oratio).

With his pencil annotation ‘concerning kings’ (nota de regibus), Henry draws attention to Psalm 20: which instructs him that, as king, he is called to ‘rejoice in the Lord’s strength and delight in His salvation’.


Perhaps even more revealing are the next two pages with the continuation of Psalm 20 and following:


Here again is the commentary of The British Library:

"Folios 23v–27

Henry VIII found further evidence in Psalm 20 (left-hand page) to support his belief that the Lord would seek out and destroy those who ‘have intended evils against thee’ because ‘the king hopeth in the Lord’.

Henry believed that God’s enemies were his enemies and his enemies were God’s and has therefore written ‘note what is said about Christ’s enemies’ (nota quid ait de Christi inimicis) alongside verse 9, which reads:

‘Let thy hand be found by all thy enemies: let thy right hand find out all them that hate thee.’

As previous examples of Henry’s marginalia have demonstrated, he was supremely confident of his own salvation, based on his own conduct and obedience to God’s law."


"Verses from Psalm 23 (right-hand page) provided Henry with further evidence to confirm his belief. The King observes that verse 3 poses the ‘question’ (questio) ‘who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord or who shall stand in His holy place?’. Henry notes that the ‘answer’ (solutio) is to be found in the next verse:

"The innocent in hands, and clean of heart, who hath not taken his soul in vain, nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbour.’"

Here is a miniature from the Psalter:



The young David [Henry VIII] prepares to confront Goliath. Dressed in Tudor costume, he wears a soft black hat with a white feather brim, similar to that worn by Henry in the famous Holbein portrait in Whitehall.

Goliath is modelled on Pope Paul III, who excommunicated the ‘heretic’ King in 1538. David’s victory over Goliath is thus directly analagous to Henry’s ‘liberation’ of England from servitude to Rome.

The British Library has the following comment:

"The illustration prefacing Psalm 26 depicts Henry VIII as the Old Testament King David preparing to slay Goliath. As the illustration shows, Henry saw himself as an English King David and considered his liberation of England from papal authority and the enemies of God’s word to be the equivalent of David’s victory against the giant Goliath.

In Henry’s opinion, both kings had destroyed icons and restored true religion. Henry has marked up Mallard’s title, which reads,

‘The complete trust of Christ in God’ (Christi plena in Deum fiducia).

These words would certainly have resonated with Henry, who increasingly saw himself standing not only in the shoes of David but also those of Christ

On the left-hand page Henry has drawn attention to Psalm 24: 3, which reads:

‘Neither let my enemies laugh at me: for none of them that wait on thee shall be confounded.’

Henry was convinced that his enemies would be sought out and destroyed because, like David, he put his trust in the Lord. "

Of Psalm 48 and Henry`s annotations, The British Library comments:

"Folios 59v–60

The annotations on these pages demonstrate how the Psalms not only provided Henry VIII with guidance in his role as king and chief priest but also instructed him about his own behaviour. On the left-hand page Henry notes that he considers the warning contained in Psalm 48, not to place one’s trust in worldly goods, to be excellent advice (pulchra monitio).

On the opposite page, Psalm 48 continues to offer warnings about the relative value of wealth, but Henry, who, by the time of his death, owned 55 palaces, and had a profoundly literal understanding of divine providence, appears to have understood that his wealth was a sign of God’s blessing on him.

Next to verse 19, which reads, ‘For in his lifetime his soul will be blessed and he will praise thee when thou shalt do well to him’, Henry responds, ‘note what he says about life’ (nota quid de vita ait)."


Psalms 49 -51 are very revealing:

"Folios 61v–63

Henry VIII’s marginal comments on these pages once again focus on the wicked and their behaviour. The King’s first pencil annotation on the left-hand page is written beside Psalm 49: 21, which warns that God will rebuke those wicked people who disobey His law and interpret His silence as approval, and will set before them their transgressions.

In Henry’s opinion, this verse is a ‘formidable saying’ (tremende dictum). On the same page Henry ‘takes special notice of’ (nota bene) verse 22, which cautions that those who forget God are in peril of being snatched away without any hope of rescue.

On the right-hand page Henry has written three notes next to Psalm 51, which speaks ‘of the evil’ (de maliciosis) and assures us that ‘their reward’ (eorum remuneratio) will be eternal destruction.

Henry’s last marginal comment is the most revealing for, always confident of his own righteousness, he has noted that the righteous will laugh in derision at the everlasting ruin of the evil (de iustorum oppinio in maliciosis)."


Here is the miniature accompanying Psalm 52, showing Henry and his jester, Will Somers:



Of this the Library says:

"Psalm 52 is accompanied by an illustration of an aged Henry VIII sitting in his Privy Chamber and playing a harp to identify him with the Psalmist King David.

His companion, wearing a green hooded jacket and green-blue stockings, can be identified as his jester Will Somers, with whom Henry enjoyed a close relationship for more than two decades.

The inclusion of the royal fool in the picture provides the link with the text immediately to the right of it. The illuminated ‘D’ by Will Somers’s head is the first letter of the Psalm in Latin:

Dixit inspiens in corde suo, non est Deus (‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’).

Will Somers faces out of the illustration, obviously rejected, as the content of the Psalm dictates"


As an antidote to this rather eccentric view of The Psalms, it is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves of how The Psalms should be prayed, interpreted and approached.

A much more reliable spiritual guide is Pope Benedict XVI.

In his Audience of 22 June 2011, he delivered a general view on praying the Psalms

Amongst the many things he said was the following:

"Since the Psalms are prayers they are expressions of the heart and of faith with which everyone can identify and in which that experience of special closeness to God — to which every human being is called — is communicated.

Moreover the whole complexity of human life is distilled in the complexity of the different literary forms of the various Psalms: hymns, laments, individual entreaties and collective supplications, hymns of thanksgiving, penitential psalms, sapiential psalms and the other genres that are to be found in these poetic compositions.

Despite this multiplicity of expression, two great areas that sum up the prayer of the Psalter may be identified: supplication, connected to lamentation, and praise.

These are two related dimensions that are almost inseparable since supplication is motivated by the certainty that God will respond, thus opening a person to praise and thanksgiving; and praise and thanksgiving stem from the experience of salvation received; this implies the need for help which the supplication expresses.

In his supplication the person praying bewails and describes his situation of anguish, danger or despair or, as in the penitential Psalms, he confesses his guilt, his sin, asking forgiveness. He discloses his needy state to the Lord, confident that he will be heard and this involves the recognition of God as good, as desirous of goodness and as one who “loves the living” (cf. Wis 11:26), ready to help, to save and to forgive.

In this way, for example, the Psalmist in Psalm 31[30] prays:

“In you, O Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame... take me out of the net which is hidden for me, for you are my refuge” (vv. 2,5).

In the lamentation, therefore, something like praise, which is foretold in the hope of divine intervention, can already emerge, and it becomes explicit when divine salvation becomes a reality.

Likewise in the Psalms of thanksgiving and praise, recalling the gift received or contemplating the greatness of God’s mercy, we also recognize our own smallness and the need to be saved which is at the root of supplication.

In this way we confess to God our condition as creatures, inevitably marked by death, yet bearing a radical desire for life.

The Psalmist therefore exclaims in Psalm 86 [85]:

“I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name for ever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (vv. 12-13).

In the prayer of the Psalms, supplication and praise are interwoven in this manner and fused in a single hymn that celebrates the eternal grace of the Lord who stoops down to our frailty.

It was precisely in order to permit the people of believers to join in this hymn that the Psalter was given to Israel and to the Church.

Indeed the Psalms teach how to pray. In them, the word of God becomes a word of prayer — and they are the words of the inspired Psalmist — which also becomes the word of the person who prays the Psalms."


In the annotations to Henry`s Psalter, one looks in vain for "his situation of anguish, danger or despair or, as in the penitential Psalms, [a confession of] guilt, his sin, asking forgiveness.. and [the recognition of] our own smallness and the need to be saved which is at the root of supplication"

In 2008 in an address to the Bishops attending 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict XVI perhaps put his finger on the problems of reading Scripture (or exegesis):

"We are always searching for the Word of God. It is not merely present in us. Just reading it does not mean necessarily that we have truly understood the Word of God. The danger is that we only see the human words and do not find the true actor within, the Holy Spirit. We do not find the Word in the words.

In this context St Augustine recalls the scribes and pharisees who were consulted by Herod when the Magi arrived. Herod wants to know where the Saviour of the world would be born. They know it, they give the correct answer: in Bethlehem.

They are great specialists who know everything. However they do not see reality, they do not know the Saviour.

St Augustine says: they are signs on the road for others, but they themselves do not move. This is a great danger as well in our reading of Scripture: we stop at the human words, words form the past, history of the past, and we do not discover the present in the past, the Holy Spirit who speaks to us today in the words from the past.

In this way we do not enter the interior movement of the Word, which in human words conceals and which opens the divine words. Therefore, there is always a need for "exquisivi". We must always look for the Word within the words.

Therefore, exegesis, the true reading of Holy Scripture, is not only a literary phenomenon, not only reading a text. It is the movement of my existence. It is moving towards the Word of God in the human words. Only by conforming ourselves to the Mystery of God, to the Lord who is the Word, can we enter within the Word, can we truly find the Word of God in human words. Let us pray to the Lord that he may help us search the word, not only with our intellect but also with our entire existence."